Tuesday, May 11, 2010
The best TV show I've seen recently is Justified, on FX at 10 PM Tuesdays. (You can usually get all but the latest episode on hulu.com as well.) The protagonist, U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, is based on a character who appeared in two Elmore Leonard novels. The fact that Leonard is listed as executive producer probably has something to do with the show not having been turned into the kind of turkey that some of his books have been made into. (Be Cool, which followed Get Shorty, was probably the lamest sequel ever.)
FX was also home to The Shield, the great, gritty cop drama which ended a year and a half ago. Both shows have been extremely well written. The protagonist of The Shield, Vic Mackey, was more antihero than hero, which was in large part what made that show great. But Raylan Givens is pure hero.
At the beginning of last night's episode we see Givens, who has just been put on an involuntary leave of absence from the Marshalls Service, getting drunk in a bar. He turns to a couple of loudmouths who are boasting about their sex lives and says, "Excuse me, but could you fellows turn it down just a bit?" When Loudmouth Number One objects and asks why, Givens replies, half under his breath, "Because I didn't order assholes with my martini."
When Loudmouth asks him in disbelief to repeat what he said, Givens says, "Any woman who is merciful enough to go to bed with you deserves a little more respect.
When Loudmouth asks if he has a hostile attitude, Givens replies wearily, "So I've been told."
The confrontation leads to a fight outside between Givens and the two men. Givens acquits himself well at first, but is outnumbered and eventually beaten up. Loudmouth Number One then steals his trademark white hat.
Givens' ex-wife, who left him years ago and whom he was supposed to meet at the bar, then shows up. She takes him to his home and patches him up a bit. She wants him to rescue her husband from the Dixie Mafia, from whom he has borrowed money; Givens agrees. She then tells him, "You're a good man."
Givens replies wrily, as she exits, "Not good enough." (For her.)
When one of the villains later disparages Givens' ex-wife to him, and Givens warns him not to do that, the man replies, "If someone insulted my ex, I'd thank him." Givens replies, "That's awfully compassionate of you, Billy Mack."
When Givens tells Billy his apartment smells like a dead cat, Billy, an ex-boxer, replies, "You're not going to be able to smell it when I knock your teeth out."
Givens, who is holding a gun on him, replies mildly, "You're going to bob and weave your way past a bullet? That I'd like to see."
(In an earlier episode, at one point Givens finds that his car has broken down, so he uses his cellphone to call headquarters for a ride. As he is doing this, he sees a car containing the bad guys pull up about forty yards away. At that point he adds, in the same casual tone of voice, "Oh, and send a couple of ambulances, too.")
Givens never raises his voice. But somehow, thanks to the Elmore Leonard-style dialogue, he comes across as even stronger and more masculine by virtue of his originality and intelligence.
The villains are menacing mostly by virtue of their oiliness. (Their lines are often just as witty as Givens'.) The directors were smart enough to know that they didn't have to cast acromegalics in order to project villainy.
Givens himself is played by Timothy Olyphant, who was once a finalist in the 200 individual medley at the NCAAs. He gave up his USC scholarship after a couple years so he could pursue acting, figuring he'd never make any money from swimming. (It turned out to be a wise decision, although trying to be a successful actor can often be as Quixotic an undertaking as trying to be a champion swimmer.)
Olyphant is not quite the Givens described in the books: he doesn't project quite as much grit, and maybe his voice is a tad higher. Olyphant looks more or less like what he was, a pretty boy ex-swimmer. But he's a good enough actor, and this is Hollywood.
In the final scene, Givens returns to the bar where he got beaten up, looking for his hat. He approaches the two men who beat him up from behind, tosses a couple bills on the table, and says, "This one's on me." Loudmouth Number One says, "Hey, I thought I told you never to come back to this place."
Given calmly -- and tiredly -- explains, "I'm just back for the hat." The other fellow says, "Well, I've taken liking to this hat."
Givens says, "Mister, that's a ten gallon hat on a twenty gallon head. It doesn't look right on you."
The Loudmouth says, "Hey, you were the one who was out of line last time."
"Be that as it may, I ain't leaving without the hat." Givens then gives him a hard look, and adds, "And I'm sober this time." The man hands it over.
As is so often the case, the actor playing the bad guy would obviously beat the one playing the hero in a real fight, but it's still a good scene: Givens proves his nobility by not needing petty revenge. All he wants is his hat. (Givens' white hat is a recurring motif throughout the series, and while its symbolism may seem heavy-handed at first, it is treated humorously often enough that they get away with it.)
Right before that final bar scene, Givens rescues his ex-wife's feckless wimp of a second husband. She is, of course, impossibly elegant and sexy. At the end we see Givens deliver the husband back to his ex-wife, who hugs the feckless one, gives Raylan a brief look, and then goes into the house with her husband. Raylan looks at her, nods, and drives off (into the sunset).
We, of course, are left wondering what she sees in that sap when she could be with Raylan Givens? How did that unappealing idiot ever get such a beauty? (How many times have we entertained similar thoughts in our lives?)
In this scene, as elsewhere, Elmore Leonard's sense of reality and sly humor prevail.